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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Report cards are not the problem here

Yesterday Martin Regg Cohn wrote in the Toronto Star about how the work-to-rule action by ETFO is harmful to students because of the inconvenience and delay it causes in notifying parents about those students’ final marks. He says:

Marks don’t matter. Achievement goes unnoted. Adversity remains unremarked.

Cute—far cuter than Cohn’s attempts to belittle the seriousness of the industrial action happening here later in the column with his own work-to-rule parody.

But this post, unlike my last response to someone protesting labour action, is not actually about labour, collective bargaining, or the right to take these actions. Rather, I take issue with the way Cohn, and others, have chosen to focus on the refusal to complete report cards as some kind of grave sin that demonstrates the insincerity of teachers’ commitment to our students.

Here’s the truth: if teachers and schools have been doing their jobs all year, then those final report cards don’t matter as much as you claim.

Firstly, I’m so disappointed that anyone wants to make this a debate about marks in elementary school. What, are you afraid your kid isn’t going to get into the most prestigious Grade 6 class? If a student is in danger of failing in elementary school, the principal, teachers, and parents are all going to be aware of this long before those final marks are due. It should never come as a surprise. If it does, there is a more serious communication breakdown at work here that has nothing to do with work-to-rule. And if a student is not in danger of failing, then great—they get to go on to the next grade! That is how school works. The marks are kind of secondary to the whole process—although a teacher might look at a student’s marks from the past year, let me assure you that any good teacher is going to base their lessons on assessments of prior knowledge that they give to students rather than a couple of levels in a database.

Secondly, what Cohn ignores here, even as he presents himself as the defender of concerned parents and students, is that it’s the learning that is paramount, not the reporting. Surely we should be focused on whether work-to-rule is detrimental to students’ learning.

This is not, entirely, Cohn’s fault here, or even the fault of the broader media in this round of criticism. They are simply echoing the sentiment that has taken root in our society, that marks are the final arbiter of student achievement, that “data” is the all-important metric. That way lies the morass of standardized testing that plagues the US and UK. (For what it’s worth, EQAO claims its testing is standards-based rather than standardized—I have no idea what the difference is though.) No, thank you. We need to sit down and take a serious look at what we actually want for our students. Do we want them to pass a few tests so we can check off some boxes and pat ourselves on the back, job well done? Or do we want to encourage them to be creative, solve wicked problems, ask questions, and become lifelong learners?

So this attempt to paint teachers as the villains because they don’t fill in report card data further distracts us from the really important issues in education. This is the behaviour that is harming our students, because it encourages people to believe that report cards and marks are somehow going to help our students do better. Stop pretending. Students only care about report cards because we tell them to. And it’s tragic that we’re telling students they should care more about getting scores on a piece of paper than learning. What all of us should care about is whether or not students have, you know, actually learned something and grown as people.

If that feels too touchy-feely to you, I’m sorry (not sorry). I have no sympathy for the flawed logic behind the idea that report cards and marks are the only way to measure “progress.” If you think a single number somehow sums up what a student has learned, and can do as a result of that learning, in a subject, maybe you need to go back to school. Students are people, so much more complex than a single number can summarize.

I understand completely that parents are interested in being (and have a right to be) informed about how their students are doing at school. But that brings me to my third point, kind of related to what I said earlier: if you’re waiting for the end-of-year report card to tell you that, then you are doing it wrong.

Teachers regularly (as in, every day) assess students, and sometimes we even assign marks to those assessments. Parents do not need to wait for a report card to find out how their student is doing. They can look at the feedback we give students on their assignments—surely written, descriptive feedback is far more informative than a number grade?—or, you know, call the school and have a conversation.

Elementary teachers are at the forefront of a movement to use technology to open up their classroom to the world: many classrooms now have Twitter accounts, where the teacher will tweet about what a class is doing or share photos of student work. Sometimes even the students will (after it is vetted by an adult) get to tweet their own messages. Some classrooms have blogs. While teachers can’t share individual assessment results this way, for obvious reasons, these tools for sharing the content of the learning give parents an unparalleled opportunity to glimpse what’s going on behind that classroom door. Now you don’t have to settle for the so-practised “Nothing!” reply to your routine question, “What did you do in school today?” You can just go to the classroom blog, where you’ll see that the students worked on their science projects—here are some photos of their creations!—oh, and here’s a post reminding parents that they need more used K-cups for math class—links to previous K-cup projects attached.

We are in the middle of an exciting moment of evolution in education, one where technology has the potential to bring parents and teachers closer together to enhance the learning of our students.

We can’t lose sight of that. We must not allow the bureaucratic concerns of an administration obsessed with arbitrary quantifiers to distract us from the human elements of education—the elements that actually matter.

I must mention at this point that these tech-based ways to boost parent–teacher communication are almost entirely initiated by individual teachers. They learn how to do this and set it up on their own time, usually by talking to their community of professional colleagues after school and on weekends. This is unpaid labour that we do because we are passionate and we care, just as parents care, about the children in our charge. We do all this … but no, you give us grief because we refuse to enter a couple of marks—marks we actually did record, so it’s not like we didn’t do our job—into a database. We refuse to do a wholly administrative task, and suddenly we are terrible people who have it out for the students.

So no, student achievement is never unnoted. We remark on it and praise students for it every day, and we inform parents about it in a variety of ways. No, adversity never remains unremarked. We celebrate it constantly: our classrooms are (or should be) safe spaces where students can try, and fail, and try again—and maybe succeed—because it’s that act of trying that matters so much. If parents aren’t seeing this, if they are unaware of the substance of what is happening in their child’s life or in the classroom, then the problem is not with teachers refusing to fill out report cards, but is a broader issue of communication. And the best way to fix that is to support teachers and ensure that we have the working conditions we need to be the most effective and enthusiastic professionals we can be.

You want to talk common sense? What does your common sense tell you happens when you take away people’s autonomy, make it harder for them to earn a living, and tell them how to do their jobs? Does that lead to happier professionals? Does that lead to better professionals?

We know what’s at stake here, trust us—we live those stakes every day. We are entrusted with the education of the next generation, and we are completely aware of the implications if we mess that up. We are trying so hard not to compromise that education while simultaneously trying to get a little more respect and a little more cooperation from our employers—because we believe, in our professional judgement, that we need these things to keep that education at the high quality parents and students expect and deserve.

If the most excoriating topic you can come up with is report cards, if that is where you think the priority of teachers should be in the last days of class, then you need to reevaluate your approach to this whole thing. What teachers are doing is a massive inconvenience to administrators, yes—that is the point—but it is not going to adversely affect students. Don’t pretend there’s a crisis where none exists. Everyone will get their report cards—it will just take a little longer. But more importantly, report cards are not, and have never been, the only or best way for parents to learn how their students are doing in school. Come join us in the twenty-first century, and you’ll see that soon enough.